20 years on from the innovations of early-2000s masterpieces like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born, Wilco enlisted art-pop auteur Cate Le Bon to help them take their next step forward. The result, Cousin, is their most adventurous and accomplished album in well over a decade – and as Le Bon and Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy tell us, it was only possible thanks to the unique way they connected with each other
In rock’s recent past, the producer as provocateur-confronter has cast a long shadow. BJ Burton tore up Low’s playbook magnificently for their final two albums; before that, Richard Russell carved a niche re-tricking old dogs in the form of Gil Scott Heron and Bobby Womack. Even the end of Blur’s first run was characterised by deliberate production mismatches fluctuating between the sublime (William Orbit’s sprawling abstractions on 13) to the plain embarrassing (let’s all try and forget Fatboy Slim’s ‘Crazy Beat’, yeah?).
The most elegant producer-led transformation of the past 25 years, though, must be that of Wilco, who morphed over the turn of the century from loveably scratchy alt-country to electrifying experimental kraut-drone-noise-rock tumult with the arrival of sonic maverick Jim O’Rourke, whose co-productions of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born created a pair of post-millennial totems.
Since the latter, though, Wilco have not looked outside their inner circle for production expertise. Although it’s perhaps too reductive to imply that that closing-in is evident from the seven albums that have followed – plenty of highlights pepper those records, and Ode To Joy in particular was as the title suggests – but a whiff of the comfort zone has nonetheless started to hover over the recent output of a band once known for their creative restlessness.
That, however, has all changed with the arrival of Cousin, with Jeff Tweedy inviting Welsh musician and producer Cate Le Bon to be the first outsider to steer the band through an album since O’Rourke in 2004. Le Bon’s influence is immediate: warped-tape timbres instantly intrigue, Tweedy’s beautiful melodies soar through thickets of taut percussion, and by the record’s end there’s a strong suspicion that Le Bon’s audible input might just have helped by far the most musically accomplished line-up of Wilco make the album you always knew they could.
The result is the band’s best release since Ghost, and there’s a subtext that Tweedy perhaps recognises that too. While politely (and understandably) resistant to discussing past Wilco triumphs, at one stage in our conversation he acknowledges the desire on Cousin to “aim higher” than usual, a quality that Le Bon – blithe, unflappable, and unfailingly humble throughout our hour-long three-way chat – appears to have triggered in him perfectly. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of making Cousin itself, though, we started by defining our terms.
Sam Walton: What makes a good producer?
Jeff Tweedy: I don’t know if I’m a good producer, but I’m a different type of producer from Cate. Cate’s role on Cousin was different from what any artist has asked of me. I generally try to make people comfortable to do what they want to do, and I’m pretty hands-off about shaping the record, but when I asked Cate to work on the record with Wilco I was hoping she’d be more involved in the shaping and arranging. But both approaches can be useful. Certainly with the people I’ve worked with, it’s helpful to have somebody make practical things easier – when you’re worried about a lot of things, having someone else to worry about them for you can be great.
Cate Le Bon: Yes, it’s a nebulous role, isn’t it, but also an incredible thing when you’re working with people you chime with, when there’s all this forward motion and curiosity is leading. Then, it’s a really beautiful relationship, between producer and artist. But every production role I’ve had has been different: the line where artist and producer meet is always moving, but knowing what it’s like on both sides is a huge benefit to walking that line well.
JT: It’s a collaboration, right? And like all collaborations, it means different things when you put different people together. Like, Wilco wasn’t looking for any old producer – there wasn’t a list of names – I wanted to work with Cate. The decision was really inspired by getting to know Cate and having an instinct that it would feel really good to combine our sensibilities and see what happened.
SW: How did you two meet?
JT: I heard [Le Bon’s 2013 album] Mug Museum and was a fan immediately. Then these days, what normally happens if I’m a fan of something is that Wilco has this festival, Solid Sound, where we invite people we like and want to spend time with, which expands our world a little bit, and hopefully we share our audience with those people, and that’s a lovely thing we get to do. Cate was invited and I sent out an email like I always do to see if any of the bands that were coming wanted to collaborate or sit in on any songs or anything like that. Cate was the first person to respond, so we hit it off.
CLB: My parents were both huge Wilco fans so I listened to Wilco as a teenager. Then one day my dad emailed me to say that Jeff had written something in Pitchfork about Mug Museum and it blew my father’s mind. After that, we slowly started to move in similar circles.
JT: We just found ourselves becoming friends in an inexplicably fast way – there’s a sense of familiarity that I don’t know how to account for. Maybe there’s some sort of ancestral memory, or maybe that’s how friendships work when you can be years apart, and the next time you see each other it can be just like the day before.
SW: Why did you decide to work together now?
JT: It was really the material that made me think of Cate. There were some songs I had written in this batch that were my attempts to write a Cate Le Bon song – like, not aiming right at it, but I could hear things in my songwriting that I felt were responding to the challenge of Cate’s material, and I think that’s a healthy way to look at it. I was looking for music that issued a challenge for me to aim higher than I would when I was just going with my usual approach.
SW: What made you want to aim higher than usual on this record?
JT: I think I try really hard every time – it’s built into how I make records. It was more that this material kept my mind coming back to the notion of working with Cate, and I kept thinking that it would be really helpful to me to have her sensibility on board and have someone keep my eye on the important things, because you can get really overwhelmed, especially on this record: there were 30 or 40 songs going into it, so just that alone was hard for me to sort through.
SW: Is that where you came in, Cate?
CLB: Well before that, actually: Jeff was kind enough to let us rehearse at The Loft for our Chicago Pitchfork show. During that, he took me aside and said, “Can I ask you something?”, and I assumed it would be. “What do you want for lunch?” or whatever, but he said, “Will you produce the next Wilco record?”, and I was so caught off-guard that I just welled up! It was an obvious yes, and then we just went about our business for the rest of the day.
Then once that surreal moment had dissipated, we spoke about what Jeff wanted from me in the producer role, and Jeff sent 30 or 40 songs. I picked the ones that resonated with me, and which I thought would make a nice shape of a record. I tried to be very instinctive about that – if I found myself singing one of them, that was a good sign – but it was pretty tough whittling it down to the 14 to actually go and work on.
The funny thing was, though, that when he asked, I said of course, and gave Jeff a big hug, and then Jeff said, “It’s okay, you can text your dad!”
JT: That’s what gave me the confidence to ask, actually – I thought that there was no way that Cate’s dad was going to let her say no!
SW: The more you talk about this, it sounds like a marriage proposal…
JT: Well, there is something inherently intimate about making music with your friends: it requires a certain consideration of compatibility, and things you don’t have in a lot of other types of relationship. Like, you know that if you’re going to make a whole record together, you’re going to have to go through some ups and downs – it is like for better or worse – it’s an intense relationship.
CLB: That’s true, but it also felt we were always on the same trajectory, which is an anomaly for me.
JT: Yeah, and me too. But I think all we’re trying to get at is that it really worked – there was immediate and natural rapport that in other circumstances you have to force yourself to find, which causes friction and ends up at a dead end. That being said, not all discussions with Cate were easy…
CLB: But my job was to be honest! Obviously, that can be quite a trepidatious path: often, when people ask you to come in as a producer and change things up, you do that and they go, “What the hell are you doing!?” But Jeff was incredible at going, “Yes this is what I asked for!” He has a great mind for going, “Sure, let’s see where this goes…”
JT: My first reaction when I was discomforted by something Cate suggested was that this was exactly why we’re working together! If we were just going to agree on everything, there’d be no point Cate being here. I’ve made so many records by myself up at the studio completely in my comfort zone with engineers who know my instincts, and in a healthy way want to anticipate and facilitate them. But it’s a waste of Cate Le Bon if you don’t let Cate Le Bon say that Cate Le Bon is the way to go!
SW: How do you think the records you’ve made with an external producer differ from those you’ve self-produced?
JT: Just to be clear, I really don’t know how to judge final product against any other final product – and it’s not my job to do that either. I never think about the old albums. I’ve actually worked hard to try and avoid doing that, which is why the process changes so much from record to record – I don’t trust that I would be happy doing the same thing again and again.
CLB: And I liked that, going in. It was quite freeing: there was no set formula, I think, because Wilco have made records in so many different ways. On all those old records, the band is there, Jeff runs through them, and they’re here now too, so it’s really about looking forward and enjoying the moment. So there was never any looking back, but there wasn’t really any looking forward either to the finish line, talking about what the record was going to be, until we were there. It was about being in the moment and being curious, and letting everything be a possibility until it wasn’t. And I think that’s why Jeff doesn’t really repeat himself, and why all his records sound different, but they all sound like Wilco.
JT: I think that’s why I love making records, because at the end of the process, if I’ve done it in a way that’s honest and meaningful, I’ll have a record to listen to that’s not like any other record I’ve got, and I love listening to the music that I’ve made. Driving around for months listening to this record was really a joy, because every time you’re aiming for this feeling of not just “How did I do that?”, but “How did we do that?”, and not really knowing how it all comes to that point where you feel excited by it. I mean, that’s an incredibly powerful thing to get to conjure up for yourself, and it’s the only thing that I trust as being of value. What gives me the confidence that what I’m putting into the world has any value at all is that it’s worked some magic on me first.
SW: Can you imagine future Wilco records being influenced by how Cousin came together? Might you make another Wilco record together?
JT: I like to think that there’s some shared music in our future, because I like spending time with Cate and making music with Cate, and so I hope that happens again. But the joyous thing about it is that when it does, I don’t know that it’ll be anything foreseeable.
CLB: I feel like Jeff is now a friend, so there’s no urgency, or feeling that I have to hold onto this thing, because as long as we’re both making music, our paths will cross. I’m making a record at the moment, and almost every day I think about something Jeff has said, or his reaction to something, or wonder what Jeff would do, so for me it’s a beautiful organic thing that will continue to blossom from time to time. I feel like we’ll always be thinking or talking about making something together.
JT: I love the idea of getting better, and I love the idea that working with Cate helped me get better, and will continue to get better in the same way that she’s describing working on her new record right now. That’s how it’s supposed to work – it should be an acknowledged condition that you’re never just yourself, and part of ‘being yourself’ is about embracing the influence of the people you care about. You’re not ever just yourself.
SW: Has Cousin whetted your appetite for working with new people? Has it made you want to broaden your collaborative scope?
CLB: I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually – on my record before last [Reward, 2019], I had quite a bad experience with the people I was working with, and I think on Pompeii  I just shut that side of things down and did almost everything myself to keep it low-risk. But working with Jeff, feeling that real camaraderie and the joy of working with like-minded people has made me readdress how I’m making this current record, and I’ve invited more people into the fold than I was initially planning, tried to do things differently and be a bit braver and more uncomfortable. Jeff made me realise that there’s nothing better than being in a room with your friend making music and laughing, so that’s reignited things for me.
JT: For Wilco, I generally am happy to be around artists that I like and play together, and I don’t think I’ve ever not had that desire. But this collaborative impulse we’ve been discussing here was unique to Cate, so working with her hasn’t made me go, “Gosh I want to work with just whoever”, because whoever isn’t Cate!
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